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Study Tips

What is a MOOC and how do they work?

Massive Open Online Courses offer university-level tuition online to anyone who's keen (minus the tuition fees!). But are they worth your time?

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With MOOCs (or Massive Open Online Courses), you can broaden your knowledge, dabble in new fields and even improve your career prospects.

Always had an interest in economics, programming, literature or something else but not sure if it's really your bag? A MOOC in the subject could be the perfect opportunity to dip your toe in the water and give it a go, but without too much commitment, in case you change your mind.

We've got everything you need to know about these open access courses – read on to work out if they're the right option for you.

What is a MOOC?

The acronym 'MOOC' stands for Massive Open Online Course. It refers to short university-level courses offered online via distance learning which are, in most cases, free of charge.

Instead of having lectures and seminars every day, MOOCs are taught entirely online, while contact with lecturers is made by email and group discussions take place over course forums.

Coursework and assessment work differently depending on the course you take and which university is offering the program. Generally, you'll be looking at a few weeks per course which will require a couple of hours of your time each week.

Accessible education

The main aim of these courses is to make university-level knowledge accessible to anyone who wants to learn, regardless of their location or personal circumstances.

MOOCs shouldn't be confused with Open University courses, which are fully accredited university degrees offered online for students who want to study in their own time (and so will involve many years of commitment and degree-level tuition fees, too).

MOOCs provide high-quality teaching from some of the most respected professors and at the world's best universities, but require very little commitment and have no entry requirements.

For example, Oxford Uni stepped into the distance learning world by offering its first MOOC in 2017. The course focuses on understanding the economy and is taught by Sir Paul Collier, professor of economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.

You can find out more info about the University of Oxford's MOOC here.

Will MOOCs give you a qualification?

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Credit: Mallmo – Shutterstock

Most MOOCs won’t offer a formal qualification once you've completed the course (but you can pay around £50 for a certificate if you'd like proof). It is, however, possible to use certain programs to gain credits towards a degree or to gain a Certificate of Achievement (but again, you'll have to fork out for this).

FutureLearn is currently the UK's biggest MOOC provider. They offer free short courses and 'programs' which are made up of a number of free courses to give you more in-depth knowledge on a subject.

After completing a full program, you could be awarded credits towards a university degree or a certificate of achievement. In order to gain the credits, you need to take an assessment at the end of each block/course and pay for each certificate.

You're sometimes also required to take a final assessment at the end of the program, which will also cost you some money. Prices vary, but generally, you'd be looking at around £50 for a certificate and £200 for a final exam.

Alternatively, you can opt for their Unlimited plan, which costs around £200 per year and allows you to get a certificate for hundreds of short courses.

Are MOOCs free?

You can get full access to MOOCs for free, but if you would like an accredited qualification from them, you will likely have to pay up.

But it's not just about qualifications in the MOOC game – even though you don't always finish with credits, free courses can still improve your career prospects and look great on your CV.

Extracurricular learning demonstrates to future employers that you have a genuine desire to learn and broaden your knowledge. 

Some universities have also started taking their first steps towards offering accredited degrees online (or at least partially).

However, it's worth knowing that, while access to all the course materials and the online tuition itself is free of charge, you do need to pass each block and pay £50 for a certificate to progress onto the degree at the end of it (costs work out at around £500 in total). So, it's definitely not a free option.

Are MOOCs worth it?

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Credit: NBC

Online learning isn't for everyone, and MOOCs do tend to be most popular among graduates seeking to top up their knowledge on a subject to progress in their career.

However, that's not to say that current students can't benefit from these courses. If your CV is looking a bit thin, having some extracurricular learning on there to show you're actively keen to learn outside of your field will really impress graduate employers.

To keep things simple, here's a list of some of the reasons you might want to give it a try (and reasons why they might not be right for you):

Reasons to do a MOOC

Unsure whether MOOC education is right for you? We recommend you try a Massive Open Online Course if you:

Reasons not to do a MOOC

We would not recommend you do a MOOC if you:

  • Are looking for a tangible reward (i.e. qualification) out of it, unless you're willing to pay
  • Struggle to self-motivate and usually need prompting to meet deadlines (drop-out rates can be very high)
  • Struggle with computers – as the entire course is done online, a certain level of computer literacy is crucial
  • Feel you need one-on-one contact with tutors and classmates – all contact is done online, and you'll get much less contact with tutors.

Where to find the best MOOC courses

There are thousands of MOOCs available online from all around the world. While the majority of courses have been US-based in the past, the launch of FutureLearn in 2012 has seen universities across the UK getting involved in online learning.

These are the best places to find MOOCs:

  • FutureLearn Originally started by the Open University, and now working with over 80 universities, as well as various world-renowned institutions such as the British Library and UNESCO
  • Coursera One of the largest US-based MOOC providers, offering hundreds of free online courses from over 250 partners around the world
  • EdX A not-for-profit provider created by MIT and Harvard University, with over 24 million users and more than 1,000 courses.

Interested in other kinds of free online courses? Our guide covers our top picks.


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